In October, a former employee of Founders Brewing Co., Tracy Evans, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based brewery, which ranks No. 15 in the top 50 breweries in America based on beer sales volume, according to the Brewers Association (a trade organization representing craft brewers). In late October, Founders filed a questionable response, that among other things said Evans couldn’t sue, while many of the complaints were not even disputed.
Evans, who is black, said he was terminated in 2018 shortly after notifying his supervisor he planned to meet with human resources to discuss Founders’ racist work environment. Among his many observations and complaints were:
- Founders had electronically named its printers in a manner blatantly racist to African-Americans. Specifically, the facility’s upstairs printer used by management employees was named the “white guy printer” and the downstairs general employee printer was named the “black guy printer.”
- In October 2017, Evans applied for a lateral transfer as the Events and Promotions Manager in the newly-opening Founders taproom in Detroit. Prior to the move, he said he was approached by a Caucasian employee who exclaimed “What’s up with Detroit my nigger?” Evans noted he immediately told the employee that it was not right for him to say that statement and reported the employee to human resources, but the employee continued to work for Founders.
- Evans said he heard from other employees that a Caucasian employee made racist comments including but not limited to a complaint about how “dark” the Detroit taproom’s cliental is.
- Evans said he was treated differently from his white counterparts when subjected to scrutiny and disciplinary practices for work routines such as schedules and clock-in times.
- Evans said he was denied a promotion due to his race.
There are many other examples that Evans states in this complaint against Canal Street Brewing Co., which operates as Founders Brewing Co., including a story where someone uses the term “head nigger in charge” to describe ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. We can’t say what is true and what is not or how this suit will eventually play out, but we reached out to one of the beer industry’s most esteemed attorneys, Matthew McLaughlin — alcohol regulatory attorney, executive director of the Mississippi Brewers Guild and 2017 winner of the FX Matt Defense of the Industry Award by the Brewers Association. What was McLaughlin’s take on all this, and how can the rest of us learn from it?
I want to first say that many of allegations made by the plaintiff, Tracy Evans, are not disputed by Founders and that is reprehensible. Obviously, I am only privy to the facts that are alleged in the complaint, but I really question why employees of Founders that were openly making racially insensitive comments were not immediately terminated from employment. That type of behavior should not be condoned or accepted in any way merely through simple writeups and disciplinary action that lacks any real teeth.
Having said that, like all discrimination cases, this one is going to hinge on the facts and the evidence the parties have to substantiate their claims and statements. Based on Founders’ response to the complaint, it would appear they have implemented processes and policies in place to address employment related claims and performance, but have they done enough and do they have enough to adequately defend the claims made by the plaintiff?
Again, some of the allegations made by Evans are not disputed by Founders. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out, but I believe this case will likely survive any motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment that may be filed by Founders. In the end, I suspect this case will end up settling, but the behavior experienced by the plaintiff should not be tolerated or condoned by any employer.